By: HaRav Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Published in the U.S.A.
Parashat Vayyaquel opens with the command, “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day.” Shemot 35:1-3.
We learn from the Gemara that “kindling a fire” [לא תבערו אש, literally, “do not light a fire”] is one of the thirty-nine primary Shabbat prohibitions. Maseket Shabbat 75b. However, in Parashat Vayyaquel, we are told “You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings [לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם] on the sabbath day.”
These pesukim raise at least two questions: Why does the Torah, when restating the command to observe Shabbat:
Turning first to the second question, we learn from the Gemara that the thirty-nine categories of primary Shabbat prohibitions represent the various types of work that was done in the building of the Mishkan (temporary Sanctuary). Maseket Shabbat 73a, et seq. Fire, of course, is a fundamental tool which, in one way or another, is used in almost all types construction.
A novel theory which has been advanced to explain why “in all of your dwellings [בכל משבתיכם]” was added to the prohibition of kindling a fire on Shabbat [לא תבערו אש] is that Moshe Rabbeinu was concerned that some of the craftsmen who were making the various components of what would become the Mishkan might, in their zeal to complete the Mishkan, take their work home and kindle a fire on Shabbat so that they could complete their work sooner.
Turning now to our first question, why did the Torah single out and include the prohibition of kindling a fire on Shabbat, requires that we step back and look at the structure of the last few parashiyot. When we do that, we see that the Torah engages in a lengthy discussion about the Mishkan, “interrupts,” so-to-speak, that discussion for the story of the Golden Calf, and then returns to a discussion of the Mishkan and related topics.
Rabbi Umberto Cassuto (1883, Italy – 1951, Israel) wrote that the phrase “You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings [לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם]” was intended as a refutation of the pagan custom of lighting fires in homes in celebration of pagan festivals. Rabbi Cassuto noted that in Mesopotamia, there was a festival dedicated to fire and that the people of Mesopotamia were commanded to make a fire in their homes on that festival.
Rabbi Cassuto’s theory is bolstered by the observation of an academic who noted that the text of the Torah which follows the story of the Golden Calf, but which precedes the prohibition in Parashat Vayyaquel of “You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings [לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם] on the sabbath day” constitutes an uninterrupted warning to the Jewish people of the dangers of assimilating into the cultures of other nations.
Thus, we see that the purpose of the sequence of the topics in this week’s parashiyot and the parashiyot that we have been reading for the past few weeks – holy matters, idolatry (the Golden Calf), warnings against making treaties with those who occupy Eretz Yisra’el (assimilation), commandment against the pagan practice of kindling a fire on a holiday, and then, back to holy matters – is to teach that we, the Jewish people, must remain separate and apart from the nations of the world if we are to be the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” [ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש], Shemot 19:6, that Hashem desires us to be.
The misvah to remain separate and apart from the nations of the world is composed of two branches: individual (aka: personal) misvot and national misvot. Personal misvot include, for example, refraining from the sin of intermarriage and the timeless obligation for a Jew to live in Eretz Yisra’el. National misvot, which are discussed at-length in other articles, include, for example, expelling most non-Jews from Medinat Yisra’el (the State of Israel) and rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.